Memories of Perugia

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on January 23, 2022 by telescoper

My friend and colleague Vicent Martínez sent me this picture which dates from the spring of 1988.

Picture credit: Vicent Martinez

It took me a while to figure out where it was taken but I finally came to the conclusion that it was in Perugia (the University thereof) in Italy at a small workshop organized there by Silvio Bonometto. If memory serves that room was called the Aula Mussolini

I am on the far left (looking deranged) and talking to Alain Blanchard (with the long black hair). In between us is Vincent Icke. Further along the same row you can see Dennis Sciama, who is sadly no longer with us, and John Miller. In the middle looking at the camera is Rien van de Weijgaert. Just behind me is Bernard Jones. I guess Vicent must have taken the picture!

You can find this and other pictures from this bygone era here.

Yes, I know it’s very white and very male. Meetings tended to be like that in those days.

Incidentally 1988 was the year that I finished my DPhil thesis so I was still a graduate student at the time of this meeting. I think I gave a talk but can’t remember what it was about! In fact I don’t remember much about that meeting except for the splendid lunch that happened at the end. We took a coach trip to a magnificent Castello in the country and were treated to a lavish banquet of many courses. As luck would have it I sat next to Dennis Sciama at the meal, which I enjoyed greatly. Dennis was my academic grandfather (i.e. he supervised my supervisor). He was a lovely gracious man as well as hugely knowledgeable about a wide range of things, wonderful to talk to, and very generous with his time. He was also teetotal, so when they came to fill up his glass he gave it to me so I had a double wine ration, and a single ration would have been a lot!

If I recall correctly the coach trip also took in quick visits to the towns of Cortona and Arezzo.

Anyway, seeing that picture sent me a bit down memory lane during which I opened up a box of old photographs to find some more of Perugia. That meeting in 1988 was the first time I’d visited that ancient and beautiful place but I’ve been back a few times since then and on one occasion took a few snaps as I wandered round. I thought black-and-white would capture the atmosphere of the place. You can decide whether I was right!

The first picture is of the main square (Piazza IV Novembre) and the second the famous Etruscan Arch, which dates from pre-Roman times, emphasizing how ancient this place is! The town is perched on top of a steep-sided hill so it’s quite hard work getting around on foot but well worth exploring.

Restrictions Eased

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Politics on January 22, 2022 by telescoper

Last night the Taioseach Micheál Martin went on the telly to confirm, amid a flood of clichés, the news that had been leaking all day that most public health restrictions in Ireland were to be scrapped from 6am this morning. That means all capacity limits on pubs and restaurants, social distancing, vaccination certificates, household gatherings, etc, no longer apply from today. I wasn’t up at 6am to see anyone rushing to the nearest pub to celebrate but I suspect some might have done.

The scale of the loosening of restrictions has taken a lot of us by surprise, especially as case numbers, though falling, are still at very high levels. This was the situation yesterday:

The key thing is the orange line, which has remained steady and low despite the rising number of cases; the very successful vaccination booster programme and the apparently less lethal nature of the omicron variant have combined to keep hospitalizations well below hospital capacity, especially for intensive care and relatively stable.

Let me remark on the fatality figures. Ireland only reports Covid-19 related deaths once a week now, on Wednesdays. In the week up to 19th January, 52 deaths were reported. That compares with 1,865 over the same period in the UK (and that figure is obtained using an artificial 28-day cutoff, i.e. a Covid-19 related death is only counted as such if it occurs within 28 days of a positive test). The population of the UK is about 67 million, compared to Ireland’s 5 million, i.e. about 13 times larger. The number of Covid-19 related deaths however, even using the artificially reduced UK figure, is 36 times larger. That means the per capita death rate there in the UK is at least 2.7 times higher than here in Ireland. What are so many more people dying in the UK? The only reason I can think of is that the UK has significantly worse vaccination coverage.

Note also that although most restrictions are being removed, that does not mean all restrictions are being removed. People who test positive for Covid-19 will still have to isolate, as will close contacts. Face coverings will still be required in indoor settings such as shops and on public transport, for example. I for one would have carried on wearing a face covering in such places even if it were not required.

Obviously it is good that restrictions are being removed. Everyone I know is fed up and many businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, are struggling. I would however like to make two points.

First, give a thought to those people who are medically vulnerable. They will be very concerned at the removal of social distancing. I can imagine that many will have good reasons for not wanting to be in the crowded environments that are now allowed. I certainly think we should continue to make it possible for students in that situation, or those who have to isolate, to follow lectures remotely.

My second point is that almost everyone seems to be assuming that there’s no possibility at all of another, more lethal, variant coming along and putting us all back to square one. The greater the level of infection circulating, the greater the probability this will happen. Loosening restrictions will lead to a further increase in cases and a greater probability of further mutations in the coronavirus. For that reason alone I would have preferred a more gradual relaxation of the rules. In other words, I don’t agree with this front page in today’s Irish Times, which I think is highly irresponsible.

It crossed my mind last night that it was in mid-March 2020 that we entered our first lockdown. What’s the betting that we’ll have to reimpose restrictions about the same time in 2022 as a result of another surge?

We don’t know yet precisely what all this means for teaching at Maynooth University, which is due to resume a week on Monday. I’d guess that it means that all lectures, including very large ones, will be on campus. We’ll have to wait for official guidance on that, though I’m fairly confident there won’t be big changes for my Department compared with last Semester. My one concern was physical distancing in the Computational Physics lab, but that seems likely not to be an issue now.

There won’t be any big changes for me in a personal sense either. I don’t intend to suddenly start going out in crowded places and it will take me some time to feel confident enough to resume my concert-going, etc. When the Taoiseach announced the removal of all physical distancing requirements yesterday, to take place from early the next morning, it was as if we were all expected to turn overnight from fermions into bosons. I’ve never liked crowds and have become even more agoraphobic over the last two years of the pandemic. It will be some time before I get over that, if I ever do.

R.I.P. Sir David Cox (1924-2022)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff, Biographical, mathematics with tags , , , , on January 21, 2022 by telescoper

I was saddened to hear a few days ago that the eminent statistician David Cox has passed away at the age of 97. I didn’t know Professor Cox personally – I met him only once, at a joint astronomy-statistics meeting at (I think) the Royal Astronomical Society back in the day – but I learnt a huge amount from books he co-wrote, despite the fact that he was of the frequentist persuasion. Three examples from my bookshelf are shown above.

I started my PhD DPhil in 1985 with virtually no formal study of statistics under my belt so I had to follow a steep learning curve and I was helped enormously by these books. I bought the book on Point Processes so as to understand some of the ideas being applied to galaxy clustering. It’s only a short book but it’s crammed with interesting ideas. Cox & Miller on Stochastic Processes is likewise a classic.

I know I’m not the only person in astrophysics whose career has been influenced by David Cox and I’m sure there are many other disciplines who have benefitted from his knowledge.

Among many other awards, David Cox was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1973 and knighted in 1985.

Rest in peace Sir David Cox (1924-2022)

A New Bank Holiday in Ireland

Posted in Covid-19, History, Maynooth on January 20, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday the Irish Government announced that there would be an additional Bank Holiday this year, on 18th March (which is the day after the existing St Patrick’s Day holiday on March 17th) to recognize the efforts of the great many people (including volunteers) who have worked so hard to counter the Covid-19 pandemic and to commemorate those who lost their lives to the coronavirus. It’s a good idea and hopefully it will occur at a time when there are many fewer restrictions than currently, which should make it a memorable occasion.

Interestingly, though, the new Bank Holiday is not a one-off but will become a permanent addition to the calendar, though on a different date: it will happen on or around 1st February from 2023 onwards. This is interesting because it corrects an anomaly in the distribution of public holidays, which I will explain here.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts of about 13 weeks each.

If you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added in italics are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan and, in parenthesis the Christian terms),for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

The last three of these also coincide closely with Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so may happen a few days away. I find it intriguing that the academic year for universities here in Ireland is largely defined by the above dates dates.

The first semester of the academic year 2021/22 started on September 20th 2021 (the Autumnal Equinox was on September 22nd) and finishes on 17th December (the Winter Solstice is on December 21st ).  Halloween (31st October) was actually a Sunday this year so the related bank holiday was on Monday 25th October; half term (study week) always includes the Halloween Bank Holiday. The term was pushed forward a bit because it finished on a Friday and it would not be acceptable to end it on Christmas Eve!

After the break for Christmas, and a three-week mid-year exam period, Semester Two starts 31st January 2022. Half-term is then from 14th to 18th March (the Vernal Equinox; is on March 20th) and teaching ends on May 6th.  More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation.

The new bank holiday will correct the anomaly that there has not been such a holiday to mark the first cross-quarter day (Imbolc). In Ireland this often referred to as St Brigid’s Day (after St Brigid of Kildare) rather than Candlemas.

The slight issue is that, in Maynooth, Semester Two of teaching usually begins around 1st February so there will be a holiday within a week or so of the start of teaching but I don’t imagine many students or staff will complain about that!

P.S. Imbolc is also sometimes called “The Quickening of the Year”. It looks like this year it will correspond to the quickening of relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, though we still wait full details of what precisely all this means for our teaching plans…

Remote working stats

Posted in Covid-19, Education on January 19, 2022 by telescoper

Here are some very interesting – and perhaps surprising – statistics about working from home in Ireland. It’s a few months old, but still relevant. It would be interesting to see an attitudes survey of this type for staff and student in Third Level institutions. Even if staff have to deliver lectures in person, I can imagine university managers eyeing the immense savings they could make by depriving staff of offices and instead requiring them to prepare lectures, do their administrative work, and carry out their research, etc from home.

The Cedar Lounge Revolution

Some fascinating statistics in relation to remote working in the Republic released by the CSO yesterday. Two particularly striking ones.

A new survey from the Central Statistics Office reveals that 90% of those aged between 35 and 44 years who could work remotely would like to do so when Covid-19 pandemic restrictions end.

The CSO’s ‘Our Lives Online Pulse Survey’ also shows that 80% of those in employment have worked remotely at some point since the start of the pandemic.

That last statistic is surprising to me. Are there that many jobs in the economy that allow up to 80% of workers to work remotely? I’d have thought it was fewer, but if even close to that 80% that’s an enormous number of people who have the facility to work in that context. I’m guessing, though I could well be wrong, that some of these would be companies who turned…

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New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 18, 2022 by telescoper

It’s a New Year and therefore a new Volume of the Open Journal of Astrophysics and it’s time to announce the first publication in it! This one is the 1st paper in Volume 5 (2022) and the 49th in all.

The latest publication is entitled Validating Synthetic Galaxy Catalogs for Dark Energy Science in the LSST Era and is written by Eve Kovacs of Argonne National Laboratory and 38 others on behalf of the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay which includes the abstract:

You can click on the image to make it larger should you wish to do so. You can find the arXiv version of the paper here. This is another one for the Cosmology and Nongalactic Astrophysics folder, which remains the most popular category so far on the Open Journal of Astrophysics site.

There is a little bit of a backlog in OJAp Towers owing to the Christmas break as some authors have been on leave and not doing their revisions, so I’d anticipate a few more papers in the next few weeks.

Countdown to Semester 2

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on January 17, 2022 by telescoper

In between correcting examination scripts and preparing for another examination I’ve been putting the finishing touches to the allocation of teaching to Semester 2 which starts a fortnight today, on Monday 31st January. You might think this is a bit late to be assigning lecturers to modules and it is, but we’ve had lots of staffing difficulties this year and there’s been a lot to manage.

We haven’t yet had any official information from on high about how precisely we will proceed next Semester, but I’m assuming that it will be roughly like last Semester, i.e. with most classes in person and only the very big ones online. The one headache is our Computational Physics class which is quite large this year so we will have to take care about physical distancing requirements for the laboratory sessions. I’m actually teaching that module.

As Maynooth colleague Professor Paul Moynagh has explained, it does look like the omicron wave has peaked in Ireland though I am very confused about how much of this is down to changes in testing strategy. The figures plotted above (7-day rolling averages) only show PCR tests; there are many thousands of positive antigen tests that would previously have been referred for PCR confirmation but which are now just being reported separately outside the official figures.

Anyway, the least we can say is that things do not seem to be getting dramatically worse so there’s no real motivation for imposing fresh restrictions. All the talk is now about relaxing things, actually. The existing rules haven’t been very effective at halting the propagation of the omicron variant so there’s no very good reason for keeping them as they are. I think we just need to ensure that unlocking is not done in such a way that another surge ensues.

We first went into lockdown about halfway through Semester 2 two years ago, which led to our first set of online assessments. Two years later on we look like we might actually have a return to on-campus examinations. Perhaps the set of online exams we’re marking now will be the last? Let’s see.

Michael Collins and the Handover of Dublin Castle

Posted in Film, History with tags , , on January 16, 2022 by telescoper

Today is the centenary of the formal handing over of Dublin Castle, on 16th January 1922, by British authorities to the Provisional Irish Government formed after the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It was a significant event, but was not what many people (including until recently myself) thought it was.

I went to the Cinema to see the Neil Jordan film Michael Collins when it came out. I enjoyed the film but only subsequently discovered how many glaring historical inaccuracies there are in it, right from the scenes at the beginning of the film, of the Easter Rising in 1916, that show Michael Collins alongside Eamonn De Valera at the surrender of the GPO. In fact the GPO was evacuated long before the surrender and De Valera was never there anyway: his battalion was in the East of the City at Boland’s Mill. I suppose the Director thought it was more dramatic the way it was depicted in the film, but I just find it irritating.

Now to the handover at Dublin Castle. This is how it is portrayed in the film, with Liam Neeson as Michael Collins:

Almost nothing in this entire scene is historically accurate. Collins arrived 90 minutes late owing to a transport strike, so the famous line about “you can have your seven minutes” is a concoction (as is the rest of the dialogue). Moreover, Collins arrived in civilian dress not in military uniform. The handover happened in a private meeting inside the buildings, not outside in a grand ceremony. There was no lowering the Union flag either.

I suppose the cinematic version is more dramatic than what happened in reality, which was much more mundane, but I think this kind of deliberate manipulation is more than a little sinister. If you want to know history then you shouldn’t try to learn it from a movie but instead do a bit of reading of properly researched literature. That’s one of the reasons why we have historians.

Congratulations to the 2022 RAS Award Winners!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2022 by telescoper

Given all the doom and gloom going around I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some good news and also offer my public congratulations to the all the winners of medals and awards announced yesterday by the Royal Astronomical Society. Let me draw particular attention to the following subset, purely on the grounds that I know them and their work personally (and because they’ve all either been mentioned on this blog recently and/or been known to read it from time to time and/or have recently published in the Open Journal of Astrophysics and/or are on the Editorial Board thereof).

First, the Gold Medal goes to Professor George Efstathiou of Cambridge University a true giant of cosmology (metaphorically speaking of course – I’m actually taller than him):

I’m looking forward to George receiving his medal so he can tell us what kind of chocolate is inside.

Second, Professor Alan Heavens of South Kensington Technical College Imperial College London who gets the Eddington Medal:

I should mention that among many other things Alan has worked extensively on the application of Bayesian methods to cosmological data.

Third, Professor Catherine Heymans of Edinburgh, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, wins the Herschel medal;

Catherine was actually a PhD student supervised by Alan Heavens back in the day. I wonder if this is the first time that a PhD student/supervisor combination has won RAS medals in the same year?

Correction: I’m now told that Catherine actually did her PhD in Oxford supervised by Lance Miller so I withdraw the question.

And last but by no means least we have Professor Pedro Gil Ferreira who will give this year’s Gerald Whitrow lecture:

Two interesting facts about Pedro: (i) a direct English translation of “Pedro Ferreira” would be “Peter Smith”; and (ii) he is a member of the Editorial Board of the Open Journal of Astrophysics.

Congratulations to them and indeed to all the winners of awards and medals, a complete list of whom may be found here.

P.S. It suddenly struck me when I saw the announcements yesterday evening that it’s now two years since I last attended the RAS Ordinary Meeting in person or the RAS Club Dinner. Let’s hope these can start again reasonably soon.

The Largest Map of the Universe

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 14, 2022 by telescoper

Now I’m going to have to update the bit of my popular talks (e.g this one) about `Mapping the Universe’!

After just seven months of operations of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) we now have the largest galaxy redshift survey – and it’s only about 10% of the way through its 5-year programme. Currently mapping the positions of about 7.5 million galaxies, the map will contain over 35 million by the time the survey is complete. Even now it is larger than all previous spectroscopic galaxy redshift surveys put together. The speed of DESI is accounted for by its use of 5000 robotically-positioned fibre-optic cables that can generate spectra of thousands of galaxy from a single pointing of the 4-m telescope on which it is mounted.

You can read more about the latest results from DESI here. I’ll just whet your appetite with this groovy animated picture:

DESI’s three-dimensional “CT scan” of the Universe. We are at in the lower left, looking out over 5 billion light years in the direction of the constellation Virgo. As the video progresses, the perspective sweeps toward the constellation Bootes. Each colored point represents a galaxy; gravity has pulled the galaxies into a “cosmic web” of dense clusters, filaments and voids. (Credit: D. Schlegel/Berkeley Lab using data from DESI)

The twinkling effect arises from the fact that you are viewing different thin slices through the 3D distribution. The dark sections that appear and disappear from time to time are just bits not yet included in the survey.

For those of you not familiar with astronomical distance measurements, 1500 megaparsecs = 1.5 Gigaparsecs = 4.5 billion light years (approximately), so this map is not only mapping the spatial distribution of galaxies but also how this distribution has evolved with cosmic time over billions of years.